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Published On: Sat, May 20th, 2017

China & Philippines launched dialog over South China Sea controversies

Christof Lehmann (nsnbc) : China and the Philippines, on Friday, launched what was described as candid but friendly discussions about their territorial dispute in the South China Sea and related issues after President Rodrigo Duterte, shortly after his election, decided to temporarily shelve the verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration hoping to resolve disputes and controversies through peaceful means and dialogs.

Scarborough Shoal

Scarborough Shoal, one of the Philippines most important fishing grounds.

After the first meeting on the China – Philippines Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea on Friday, Jose Santiago Sta. Romana, the Philippines’ Ambassador to China, said ”There was no issue that was left untouched, almost. We touched on several sensitive issues but we didn’t dwell, we don’t impose on the Chinese.”  Ambassador Romana who headed the Philippines delegation to the meeting added ”This is the purpose of this bilateral consultative mechanism: to discuss issues that are contentious while we proceed on the non-contentious issues in other fields that are making progress.”

Ambassador Romana said the Philippine side raised issues of arbitration, the disputed Spratly Islands as well as the right of Filipino fishermen to fish in the disputed territory. Sta Romana said ”There have been recent incidents in the South China Sea that we raised with them because it is a concern: the fishing rights, the behavior of fishermen, the treatment of the Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea and they clarified their position.”

The Ambassador commented on the first session under the bilateral mechanism saying It was “an excellent meeting” and that “Because it was very candid, it was very frank but at the same time, it was all conducted in a friendly tone. … I mean the differences we have with China did not arise in one night, neither can we solve it in one session.”

China's controversial nine-dashed-line overlaps with Economic Exclusion Zones of its neighbors.

China’s controversial nine-dashed-line overlaps with Economic Exclusion Zones of its neighbors.

Despite differences during the three-hour meeting, Sta Romana said, the Philippines side and the Chinese delegation headed by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, have found ways to discuss maritime cooperation in the South China Sea. He added ”So what we are trying to do is to create condition that we will create mutual trust and confidence and to build on a better foundation so that eventually we can resolve these issues although it will take sometime.”

Ambassador Romana said the Philippines and China will pursue areas of possible maritime cooperation in the South China Sea “without prejudice to our respective claims. .. So this is the significance of this bilateral consultative mechanism that we can discuss contentious issues, we can discuss sensitive issues but we can do it in a candid, frank and friendly way. And at the same time, explore areas of maritime cooperation.”

The Philippines’ Ambassador noted that the first bilateral meeting since President Rodrigo Duterte revived the Philippines-China relations was a big step in building a better foundation for the relations between two countries.

In a joint press statement, Liu and Sta. Romana initialed the Term of References (TOR) that was reached during the diplomatic consultations between the two states’ Foreign Ministries in January this year to establish the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM). Both sides agreed the BCM should be a platform for confidence-building measures and for promoting maritime cooperation and maritime security.

The BCM will comprise equivalent officials from the respective foreign ministries and relevant maritime affairs agencies. The delegates agreed to hold the BCM once in every six months with the next meeting to be held in Manila later this year. The two sides also agreed to address concerns, to handle incidents and disputes in the South China Sea “in an appropriate manner.”

A satellite image shows what CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative says appears to be anti-aircraft guns and what are likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) on the artificial island Hughes Reef in the South China Sea in this image released on December 13, 2016. Courtesy CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe/

A satellite image shows what CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative says appears to be anti-aircraft guns and what are likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) on the artificial island Hughes Reef in the South China Sea in this image released on December 13, 2016. Courtesy CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe/

In their joint press statement the two sides also said ”Such discussions are consistent with the October 2016 Joint Statement where both sides reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace and stability, freedom of navigation in, and over-flight above the South China Sea.” The two sides agreed to address the territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly involved on the issue.

The statement stipulated that disputes will be resolved “in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law” including the Charter of the United Nations and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Bilateral relations between the Philippines and Chine were rejuvenated after President Rodrigo Duterte’s four-day visit in Beijing in October 2016 on invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Last May 14-15, President Duterte returned to China for the first Belt and Road Forum on International Cooperation. On its sidelines, the two Presidents held expanded bilateral meeting.

Bilateral relations between the Philippines and China relations hit a lowpoint after the Philippines filed an arbitration case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague in 201 to contest China’s highly controversial territorial claims in the South China Sea. China claims almost all South China Sea territories within its so-called nine-dashed line. A month after President Duterte took his oath as President in June last year, the UN-backed arbitration court released its judgment in favor of the Philippines. However, President Duterte decided to temporarily shelve the verdict to allow resolution of the maritime dispute through peaceful means and dialogues.

Small idyllic fishing ports - How Chinese state media depict fishermen. Larger vessels protected by Chinese Coast Guard units tell China's neighbors that there are bigger fish to fry.

Small idyllic fishing ports – How Chinese state media depict fishermen. Larger vessels protected by Chinese Coast Guard units tell China’s neighbors that there are bigger fish to fry.

Before his visit to Beijing in October 2016 President Duterte stressed that he will not compromise on the Philippines territorial sovereignty. During his visit to Beijing Duterte declared that the Philippines and China would continue discussions about the territorial dispute but stressed that this dispute should not stand in the way for bilateral cooperation such as joint projects on the exploration of hydrocarbons.

After the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled on the Chinese – Philippines dispute over territories in the South China Sea, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that the ruling will not affect China’s territorial integrity or maritime right in the region. China insists that disputes with the Philippines as well as with other countries must be settled in bilateral negotiations. China has similar territorial disputes with Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Vietnam. The disputes also involve and affect the United States, Indonesia and other countries with “stakes” in the region as well as the global economy.

More than a Dispute between China and the Philippines

China’s territorial claims also overlap with Vietnam’s Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) as well as territory claimed by Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam. The Philippines, vietnam and others repeatedly stressed that Chinese fishing flotillas infringe fishing grounds. Especially Vietnam and Malaysia have repeatedly stressed that illegal Chinese fishing is being protected by Chinese coast guard vessels. Hanoi has repeatedly, and to no avail, addressed Beijing, stressing that “rogue Chinese Coast Guard units” possibly protect illegal fishing flotilla without the knowledge of and approval from Beijing.

China_South China Sea_2016_new ChinaIn March 2016 Malaysia summoned China’s Ambassador to Kuala Lumpur to voice Malaysia’s concerns about what it described as an encroachment by a large number of Chinese-flagged fishing boats in the South China Sea and the protection of illegal fishing flotilla by Chinese coast guard vessels.

The Malaysian Foreign Ministry explained that it had summoned Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of China to Malaysia, Huang Huikang, to seek clarification. There have been several incidents before and since then. Targeting international readers, Chinese State media like the Xinhua news agency attempt to cover over industrial-scale illegal fishing by associating reporting about fisheries disputes with images of small coastal fishing vessels.

Settling the disputes in bilateral talks has in part been complicated by the involvement of the United States. The USA as well as traditional US allies such as South Korea and Japan and their economies are as dependent on safe shipping in the region as China. While the United States claims that Beijing infringes on international shipping rights as well as on the territories of its neighbors, China repeatedly stressed that the United States’ military brinkmanship in the region aggravates the situation and complicates bilateral talks with Beijing’s neighbors.

Indonesia, for its part, has no territorial claims that overlap with those of China. The government in Jakarta has, however, repeatedly stressed that Indonesia is affected by the situation. Indonesia has stressed that it is neutral and does not necessarily agree with positions held by ASEAN or other ASEAN members. Indonesia warned against a military escalation and stressed the need to solve the disputes diplomatically. However, in 2016 Jakarta declared its intentions to turn Indonesia into a global maritime axis power. Growing tensions and ambitions have also prompted Indonesia to adjust its defense strategy.

Indonesia’s navy will receive submarines that are being build in cooperation with South Korea this year. In early July 2016, Jakarta announced that Indonesia will build several military bases in the Natuna Islands to safeguard the country’s sovereignty. Indonesia will also the runway of Ranai Air Base. The strategic importance of the Natuna Islands, located directly adjacent to Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia has increased significantly since the onset and aggravation of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

World martitime traffic and trade_MapTo view the dispute and the possible consequences of a conflict from a global perspective

More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through chokepoints in Southeast Asia, including the Lombok, Makassar and Sunda Straits, amounting to one-third of all maritime traffic worldwide. Oil, transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean and on to East Asia via the South China Sea is three times the amount that passes through Egypt’s Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that is shipped through the Panama Canal.

Both of these canal’s have been the cause of armed conflict. While China criticizes the United States, the USA, quite correctly, insists that its economy is as dependent on safe shipping in the South China Sea as the economy of China.

CH/L – nsnbc 20.05.2017

About the Author

- Dr. Christof Lehmann is the founder and editor of nsnbc. He is a psychologist and former independent political consultant on conflict, conflict resolution and a wide range of other political issues. In March 2013 he established nsnbc as a daily, independent, international on-line newspaper. He can be contacted at nsnbc international at

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